Ethics board releases documents in Gov. Kristi Noem nepotism complaint

Many documents from the complaint filed with the Government Accountability Board regarding allegations of nepotism against Governor Kristi Noem have been made public.
The Government Accountability Board released more than 20 documents Friday, relating to a...
The Government Accountability Board released more than 20 documents Friday, relating to a nepotism complaint against Governor Kristi Noem.
Published: Sep. 9, 2022 at 1:12 PM CDT
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PIERRE, S.D. - Newly released documents show Gov. Kristi Noem sought to dismiss an ethics claim filed against her before it was discussed publicly before the Government Accountability Board (GAB).

The board released more than 20 different documents Friday relating to a nepotism complaint against Noem filed by former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. That complaint was triggered by an Associated Press report suggesting Noem used her influence to help her daughter, Kassidy Peters, obtain a real estate appraiser license in July of 2020.

Last month, the Government Accountability Board, or GAB, found that there was sufficient evidence showing Noem engaged in misconduct, and that “appropriate action” should be taken. However, the board did not define what that action might be.

A separate complaint alleging the governor misused the state airplane was advanced to the Attorney General’s office.

The new documents shed light on a number of actions taken by Noem’s office ahead of and during last fall’s Government Operations and Audit Committee (GOAC) meetings and this summer’s GAB hearings. Some of the key findings are laid out below.

Ravnsborg’s Complaint

Ravnsborg filed his complaint against Noem on September 28, 2021, the same day that the story from the Associated Press broke on the matter. Ravnsborg alleges that Noem’s conducted a number of laws under SDCL 3-24. Specifically, he argued Noem committed the following: malfeasance; violations relating to conflicts of interest; misappropriations of public funds; and use of public money not authorized by law. GAB ultimately determined there was only enough evidence of malfeasance and violations of conflicts of interest.

Request for dismissal

In April, Noem’s lawyer sent a letter asking for the complaint against Noem to be dismissed, citing Ravnsborg’s involvement as a primary reason. The request for dismissal called the complaint a “political attack” on Noem before an election.

“Here, the Complaint should be dismissed outright because it constitutes an abuse of this Board’s complaint procedure and is a transparent attempt by the Attorney General to 5 launch a political attack on the Governor before an election,” the Motion to Dismiss by Noem’s legal team says. “He also abused his power as Attorney General by filing the Complaint in his official capacity using resources of his public office... When these factors are considered in conjunction with the baseless accusations in the Complaint, it is evident that the Attorney General has not acted in good faith.”

Though they’re both Republicans, Ravnsborg and Noem have a combative political history. Noem vocally pushed for Ravnsborg’s removal following a crash where he struck and killed a pedestrian near Highmore in September of 2020. Ravnsborg was later impeached by the legislature and removed from office. While Ravnsborg had not been impeached at the time when the letter was written to GAB last April, Noem’s lawyers argued at the time he lacked “standing to file the complaint in his official capacity.”

The governor’s lawyers also argued that even if the hearing goes forward, some of the records should be redacted. Additionally, many portions of the Motion to Dismiss are redacted.

Questions over Peter’s stipulation agreement

At the heart of Ravnsborg’s complaint were questions over Noem’s involvement in her daughter’s efforts to get a real estate appraiser’s license.

Peters received a notice of pending denial of her application in July 2020. A week later, Peters, Noem, Labor Sec. Marcia Hultman, and several other administration officials met in a closed-door meeting with Sherry Bren, who at the time oversaw the agency that issued applications. After the meeting, Peters received a stipulation agreement allowing her to move forward with the application process, which she eventually completed. Following public discovery of the story, Peters turned her license over.

The complaint argues Noem’s office offered conflicting statements on Peters’ stipulation agreement. During a GOAC hearing in October of 2021, Hultman said the agreement was in place prior to the July 2020 meeting, and that the topic was discussed only briefly at the meeting. Two weeks later, Hultman sent a letter to the board, saying the plan was not in place before the meeting.

Ravnsborg’s complaint also suggests Bren was pressured by Hultman to simplify Peters’ stipulation agreement, and that Bren was forced to retire after the agreement was later approved. Ravnsborg cites Bren later suing the state in an age discrimination lawsuit. Bren eventually agreed to a settlement with the state worth about $200,000.

“It was not common for the Secretary of Labor to suggest such amendments to an Agreed Disposition,” the complaint stated. “Nor is it common for an applicant to receive and attend a meeting with the Governor, Secretary of Labor, and other high-ranking state officials.”